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HDTV on Your Mac

by Erica Sadun, author of Modding Mac OS X
03/29/2005

So the other night, I popped over to Target to pick up an antenna. You remember what those are, don't you? Those telescoping metallic things that connect to television sets? That predate cable? Rabbit ears? I was about to buy my first antenna in, what, something like 20 years? I am such a cable-generation baby. I felt I was walking into a time warp (and not the good Rocky Horror kind, either) until I walked into the actual aisle.

It was the packaging that hit me first. Target had about a dozen or so antennas on sale, and every single one (and let me repeat that, just to be emphatic, Every Single One) had an HDTV digital-ready sticker on it. I hadn't walked back into the past--I had just entered the present. This was the world of "Terrestrial HDTV": high-definition television broadcast over the airways. The GE "Futura™" unit I picked up (got to laugh at the name, but it was only ten bucks) proclaimed that it was "designed to receive the highest quality broadcast HDTV signal." You've just got to love that.

As a platform, Macintosh is a little late to the HDTV party. PC solutions (both Windows and Linux) are more abundant and better supported, but who wants to use a PC unless you have to? Sticking with Mac, you can either fork over the medium-to-big bucks to buy a turn-key solution, like ElGato's EyeTV 500 ($350 USD), or you can try to put together your own system using a decoder card, an antenna, some freeware software and a lot of love, elbow grease, and spit. Naturally, I chose the latter.

HDTV Broadcasts

Author's note: This article discusses American NTSC broadcast of high-definition television. Apologies to readers from other countries.

When you watch TV on a traditional television set, you're watching fairly low-quality video. The analog signal contains 525 vertical scan lines with a horizontal resolution of, say, 400 to 500 dots. And of that whole picture, you can see maybe two-thirds of it because your good old picture-tube-based television set does something called "overscanning" to protect the picture tubes against the effects of aging. Enter something called ATSC. ATSC stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee, an American standards body that defined a way to transmit pure digital signals using MPEG-2 compression to your television set.   (Yes, that's the same MPEG-2 compression used by DVDs.)

When you watch TV on a traditional analog set, the television (or a converter box) grabs this digital signal, converts it to analog format, and displays it. It may look better than the quality you're used to, but it's nowhere near as good as the quality you'd see on a purely digital set. Analog TVs can't even begin to do justice to HDTV's 720 or even 1080 broadcast lines of resolution, let alone the horizontal resolution of 1280 or 1920 dots per line. You could spend a lot of money buying a digital HDTV set, or you could arrange to watch things on your computer for a lot less money.

Types of Digital Video Broadcasts

In the United States, you can receive any of three kinds of digital video broadcasts. These include:

From a Mac point of view, reception options are limited. ElGato's EyeTV 500 can receive, display, and record both terrestrial and (some) cable signals. Existing solutions for the U.S. do-it-yourselfer are currently limited to receiving terrestrial ATSC signals and unencoded OpenCable transmissions. (Unfortunately, few cable companies transmit unencrypted HDTV.)

Finding a Broadcast

If you want to find digital broadcasts in your area, point your browser to Antenna Web. You'll need to enter your zip code to perform the search.

AntennaWeb's site lets you search for digital broadcasts in your neighborhood and nearby environs. AntennaWeb's site lets you search for digital broadcasts in your neighborhood and nearby environs.

To start, enter your zip code and click Submit. A new page opens, displaying all the over-the-air broadcasts in your vicinity. Click the Show Digital Stations Only radio button. This limits the display to digital broadcasts.

AntennaWeb's results include a direction to the antenna, its distance, and the frequency assignment used by the channel. This is the same number used in iTele's Channels window. AntennaWeb's results include a direction to the antenna, its distance, and the frequency assignment used by the channel. This is the same number used in iTele's Channels window.

For the example shown here, it'd be best to aim your antenna due West. At 270 degrees, you'd have the best chance of receiving broadcasts.

Step 1: Getting Started

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In order to start watching HDTV on your Macintosh, you need to have a certain number of items on hand. These include the following:

It's easy to get set up. Just crack open your Mac case and install the PCI card. Close the case back up, connect your antenna to the card and you're set. You'll need to install a driver and the proper viewing software, as you'll see in the next section.

Step 2: Download the Software

You can find most of the software you'll need at John Dalgliesh's defyne.org website. John is the author of iTele, tunetest, and more. (He is also a kind and patient man, who helpfully answered many technical questions for me.) Here's a list of the software you'll want to have on hand.

Step 3: Install the Drivers

Follow these steps to download and install the MultiMedia Input drivers for your new HDTV video card.

  1. Double-click the .dmg file to mount its disk image on your desktop.

  2. Open the newly mounted disk image. Inside you'll find the installer software.

  3. Run the installer.

  4. Read the instructions carefully. As John says on his site: "[D]o not just click through them!"

  5. You don't have to reboot your computer to continue, but it won't hurt.

Step 4: Test Your Card

After installing your drivers, it's time to give the card a spin and start watching HDTV. In the following steps, you'll learn how to use iTele to watch and to record HDTV broadcasts.

  1. Install iTele from the downloaded disk image file by dragging the program into your Applications folder.

  2. Launch iTele. As this is your first time running the program, it will not yet know which broadcast channels it can receive.

  3. Adjust your antenna, pointing it towards the greatest density of broadcast signals in your area.

  4. Open the Inputs window (Window -> Inputs, Command-1). Here's where you need to hold your breath. If you see your card listed, then everything's OK. If not, then it's time to make sure you've installed the drivers and maybe to open up your Mac again and see if you've installed the board correctly.

    You should see your Fusion card listed in the Inputs window. You should see your Fusion card listed in the Inputs window.
  5. Select the DVICO Fusion card by clicking on its name in the Inputs window. As you do so, a drawer will open at the bottom of the window, which shows further details--or at least it will in future releases of iTele.

    After selecting an input card, a detail drawer slides open. After selecting an input card, a detail drawer slides open.
  6. Click the Scan button in the drawer to begin scanning the airwaves for digital broadcasts.

  7. You'll be prompted to enter a location. Choose Korea and North America and click Scan.

  8. Wait. It takes several minutes for the scanning process to proceed. The Channels window shows the progress of the search. Do not be alarmed if iTele only finds one or two broadcasts. Remember, they are directional.

    The Eye icon appears to the left of each channel as the scanning process proceeds. The Eye icon appears to the left of each channel as the scanning process proceeds.

Step 5: Watch

After scanning has finished, the remaining channels listed in the Channels Window (Window -> Channels, Command-2) are what you can watch. The Channel menu is a little tricky, so here's a quick overview before you continue.

I recommend that you proceed in the following fashion:

  1. Select the Channel you want to watch in the Channels window.

  2. Choose Channel -> Record Off. Make sure you don't record until you're ready to do so.

  3. Choose Channel -> Watch Little. A small screen is easier to watch at first.

  4. Wait as iTele launches MPlayer and starts displaying your video.

Voila! HDTV, right on your Macintosh Voila! HDTV, right on your Macintosh

Step 6: Record

Recording HDTV couldn't be easier. When you're ready to start recording, choose Channel -> Record On. You don't even have to be watching at the time. iTele starts capturing the already-compressed MPEG-2 signal and saves it to your home folder. After it finishes recording (Channel -> Record Off), you can watch the file by opening it and playing it back in MPlayer. Just remember, the file will be big !

AppleMark iTele stores your captured movie in your home directory. Use MPlayer or VLC to play it back.

Final Thoughts

So, if you're not quite ready to jump into the HDTV waters with both feet, this approach should serve you well while you watch how things shake out. You can also use this article as a way to rationalize that 23-inch Apple Cinema Display you've been yearning for.

The approach could be something like this: "But look at all the money I saved by not buying a High Def TV!"

Erica Sadun has written, co-written, and contributed to almost two dozen books about technology, particularly in the areas of programming, digital video, and digital photography.


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